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Harold Wilson

former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
This Party needs to protect itself against the activities of small groups of inflexible political persuasion, extreme so-called left and in a few cases extreme so-called moderates, having in common only their arrogant dogmatism.

James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, PC (11 March 191624 May 1995) was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970, and again from 1974 to 1976. He had an impressive educational background, becoming an Oxford don at 21 and working as a war time civil servant; he was made a government minister immediately after he was elected to Parliament. As Leader of the Labour Party he moved the party towards a technocratic approach and appeared more in tune with the 'swinging sixties'; however his government was beset by economic difficulties and he was unexpectedly defeated in 1970. His return to office with a tiny majority in the mid-1970s saw a referendum which endorsed British membership of the European Communities. He resigned suddenly in 1976, and in his retirement suffered from Alzheimers' disease.


Shadow Chancellor of the ExchequerEdit

  • The nation yesterday was awaiting a clear, statesmanlike call from the Chancellor of the efforts and, if necessary, the sacrifices that are needed to lift the country out of the perpetual series of crises and near crises that have dogged us ever since the war. That was what we were led to believe would happen. What did we get? We had a shambling, fumbling, largely irrelevant and, at one point, degrading speech. The Chancellor told us that the Budget was prepared under the piercing eye of Mr. Gladstone. There was one passage that was quite obviously written under a portrait of Horatio Bottomley.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (18 April 1956)
  • Traders and financiers all over the world had been listening to the Chancellor. For months he had said that if he could not stop the wage claims, the country was "facing disaster". Those were his own words. Rightly or wrongly these people believed him. For them, 5th September—the day that the Trades Union Congress unanimously rejected the policy of wage restraint—marked the end of an era. And all these financiers, all the little gnomes in Zurich and the other financial centres about whom we keep on hearing, started to make their dispositions in regard to sterling.

Shadow Foreign SecretaryEdit

  • I have stated these Commonwealth problems in terms of hard economic facts, but I should be the last to disagree with those hon. Members on both sides of the House who put the problem in yesterday's debate in terms more of sentiment, kinship and bonds of a less materialistic character than those that I have been describing. … I submit to the House that we cannot consistently with the honour of this country take any action now that would betray friends such as those. … if there has to be a choice [between the Commonwealth and Europe] we are not entitled to sell our friends and kinsmen down the river for a problematical and marginal advantage in selling washing machines in Dusseldorf.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (3 August 1961) on Britain's application to join the European Economic Community

Leader of the OppositionEdit

  • The period of 15 years from the last time we were in Scarborough, in 1960, to the middle of the 1970s, will embrace a period of technical change, particularly in industrial methods, greater than the whole of the industrial revolution of the last 250 years.
  • In all our plans for the future, we are re-defining and we are re-stating our Socialism in terms of the scientific revolution. But that revolution cannot become a reality unless we are prepared to make far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society. The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.
    • Speech at Labour Party conference (1 October 1963), quoted in Labour Party Annual Conference Report, 1963, pp. 139-140. Usually quoted as "the white heat of the technological revolution".
  • They [the Conservatives] cannot think beyond outmoded techniques of monetary regulation, followed by panic stop-go-stop measures, when bold planning for industrial expansion is called for. They cannot raise their eyes beyond a system of society where making money by whatever means is lauded as the highest service, while earning money by contributing to production and exports, or teaching or nursing is a mug's game. An Opportunity State for all our people? The Conservatives glory in one where the rewards go to land racketeers and property spivs, while the man who ventures his skill in scientific or technological advance, or in the chancy risks of export markets, is left out in the cold.
    • Speech to the Trades Union Congress in Blackpool (7 September 1964), quoted in The Times (8 September 1964), p. 14

Prime MinisterEdit

  • The government have only a small majority in the House of Commons. I want to make it quite clear that this will not affect our ability to govern. Having been charged with the duties of Government we intend to carry out those duties.
    • Television broadcast (October 1964), after winning the general election, quoted in David Butler, Coalitions in British Politics (Macmillan, London, 1978), p. 99.
  • The Smethwick Conservatives can have the satisfaction of having topped the poll, and of having sent here as their Member one who, until a further General Election restores him to oblivion, will serve his term here as a Parliamentary leper
  • [The 1964 General Election] was a decision that not only our industrial system but every aspect of our national life that has been corrupted by the doctrine of a self-perpetuating establishment should give way to an open society where knowing your job would mean more than knowing the right people. It was a decision that national purpose should override sectional interest, that earning money took precedence over making money. It was a decision for change: not change for its own sake, but change, radical and dynamic, for economic and social purpose. It was a decision, in short, that Britain should have a government and that the government should govern.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (28 September 1965), quoted in The Times (29 September 1965), p. 5.
  • We have not been pushed around either abroad or at home and we are not going to be. This is government of the people; it is government for all the people, and the accent is on government.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (28 September 1965), quoted in The Times (29 September 1965), p. 5.
  • [Labour will deal with racketeering in the price of land.] I call that a socialist theme. Yes, and I should have thought a Liberal theme. That great modernizing party on this theme at least at Scarborough last week carried through an exercise in recidivism which places its present leadership some years behind the Liberals some 60 years ago. In 1909 and 1910 they filled the land with song—'God gave the land to the people'. Now in 1965 we have the first fruits of Liberal revisionism. While they would not intend to throw doubt on the Almighty's intention in this respect, their researches suggest he did not intend this declaration to be taken too literally.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (28 September 1965), quoted in The Times (29 September 1965), p. 5.
  • We are more interested in the monthly trade returns than in Debrett, more preoccupied with what is said by the industrial correspondents and economic editors than what is said by William Hickey; more concerned with modernizing the machinery of government and the action that will need to follow the report of the Estimates Committee on the Civil Service than in altering the layout of Burke's Landed Gentry.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (28 September 1965), quoted in The Times (29 September 1965), p. 5.
  • I know I speak for everyone in these islands, all parties, all our people, when I say to Mr. Smith tonight: "Prime Minister, think again".
    • Broadcast (12 October 1965), quoted in The Times (13 October 1965), p. 8, calling on the Government of Rhodesia not to declare independence.
  • In my talks with the African Nationalist leaders...I regarded it as my duty to remove from their minds any idea or any hope they might have had that Rhodesia's constitutional problems were going to be solved by an assertion of military power on our part, whether for the purposes of suspending or amending the 1961 Constitution, of imposing majority rule tomorrow or any other time—or for that matter of dealing with the situation that would follow an illegal assertion of independence. To quote the words I used to them: If there are those who are thinking in terms of a thunderbolt hurtling from the sky and destroying their enemies, a thunderbolt in the shape of the Royal Air Force, let me say that thunderbolt will not be coming, and to continue in this delusion wastes valuable time, and misdirects valuable energies.
  • It is difficult for us to appreciate the pressures which are being put on men I know to be realistic and reasonable, not only in their executive capacity but in the highly organised strike committees in the individual ports, by this tightly knit group of politically motivated men who, as the last General Election showed, utterly failed to secure acceptance of their views by the British electorate, but who are now determined to exercise backstage pressures, forcing great hardship on the members of the union and their families, and endangering the security of the industry and the economic welfare of the nation.
  • We have taken steps which have not been taken by any other democratic government in the world. We are taking steps with regard to prices and wages which no other government, even in wartime, has taken.
    • Speech in the White House (29 July 1966), quoted in The Times (30 July 1966), p. 1.
  • [Ramsay MacDonald was] a man of great stature, capable of inspiring massive affection and massive attack—a man who created and led a great party and who has become a legend in that party equally for the manner of his leaving it as for the years he gave its creation. ... They drew their inspiration from Merrie England and dry statistics, they sang their widely differing battle songs, and Ramsay MacDonald had to fashion from the strains of Edward Carpenter's 'England Arise', from the 'Internationale', from 'Jerusalem', from the 'Red Flag', from 'These Things Shall Be', a new harmony. In 1906 in MacDonald's fortieth year, he saw the victory—the dawn of the new era.
    • Speech at a luncheon in the House of Commons to commemorate the centenary of Ramsay MacDonald's birth (12 October 1966), quoted in The Times (13 October 1966), p. 12.
  • We commemorate a man, a leader, who in the years of creation and achievement towered above his contemporaries in figure and manner, in voice and power, who worked and fought, and who suffered—as they all suffered who dared to preach socialism in an unreceptive and hostile age. He was a man who had vision, and dared all in those years to make that vision a reality; a man who inspired affection in his associates as in his own domestic circle, and who, daring all, created a lasting and durable political instrument which today 60 years after its first political success, provides the Government of this country and in so providing owes more than many are prepared to admit to the young Ramsay MacDonald.
    • Speech at a luncheon in the House of Commons to commemorate the centenary of Ramsay MacDonald's birth (12 October 1966), quoted in The Times (13 October 1966), p. 12.
  • He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.
    • Speech to the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, France (23 January 1967), quoted in The New York Times (24 January 1967), p. 12.
  • From now on, the pound abroad is worth 14 per cent or so less in terms of other currencies. That doesn't mean, of course, that the Pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalued.
    • Broadcast (19 November 1967), following the devaluation of the Pound Sterling. Usually remembered as "the Pound in your pocket".
  • I am not prepared to stand aside and see this country engulfed by the racial conflict which calculating orators or ignorant prejudice can create. Nor in the great world confrontation on race and colour, where this country must declare where it stands, am I prepared to be a neutral, whether that confrontation is in Birmingham or Bulawayo. In these issues there can be no neutrals and no escape from decision. For in the world of today, while political isolationism invites danger and economic isolationism invites bankruptcy, moral isolationism invites contempt.
    • Speech to a Labour rally in Birmingham Town Hall (5 May 1968), quoted in The Times (6 May 1968), p. 1
  • We are the party of human rights—the only party of human rights that will be speaking from this platform this month. (Loud applause.) The struggle against racialism is a worldwide fight. It is the dignity of man for which we are fighting. If what we assert is true for Birmingham, it is true for Bulawayo. If ever there were a condemnation of the values of the party which forms the Opposition it is the fact that the virus of Powellism has taken so firm a hold at every level.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (1 October 1968), quoted in The Times (2 October 1968), p. 4
  • May I say, for the benefit of those who have been carried away by the gossip of the last few days, that I know what's going on. [pause] I'm going on, and the Labour government's going on.
    • Speech at a May Day rally in London (4 May 1969), quoted in The Times (5 May 1969), p. 1. There had been a series of reports that Wilson's leadership might be challenged.
  • The last two years show that what Enoch [Powell] says today Edward [Heath] will be proclaiming as Tory policy anything from three to six months later...Selsdon Man is not just a lurch to the right, it is an atavistic desire to reverse the course of twenty-five years of social revolution. What they are planning is a wanton, calculated and deliberate return to greater inequality...The message to the British people would be simple and brutal. It would say, "You're out on your own".
    • Speech in Nottingham (6 February 1970), quoted in The Times (7 February 1970), p. 1 and Philip Whitehead, The Writing on the Wall: Britain in the Seventies (London: Michael Joseph, 1985), p. 40.
  • David Dimbleby: You couldn't - you couldn't set our minds at rest on the vexed question of what the Sunday Times did actually pay you for the book?
    Harold Wilson: No, I don't think it's a matter of interest to the BBC or to anybody else.
    Dimbleby: But why ..
    Wilson: If you're interested in these things, you'd better find out how people buy yachts. Do you ask that question? Did you ask him how he was able to pay for a yacht?
    Dimbleby: I haven't interviewed ...
    Wilson: Have you asked him that question?
    Dimbleby: I haven't interviewed him.
    Wilson: Well, has the BBC ever asked that question?
    Dimbleby: I don't know ...
    Wilson: Well, what's it got to do with you, then?
    Dimbleby: I imagine they have ..
    Wilson: Why you ask these question, I mean why, if people can afford to buy £25,000 yachts, do the BBC not regard that as a matter for public interest? Why do you insult me with these questions here?
    Dimbleby: It's only that it's been a matter of ..
    Wilson: All I'm saying, all I'm saying ..
    Dimbleby: … public speculation, and I was giving you an opportunity if you wanted to, to say something about it.
    Wilson: It was not a matter of speculation, it was just repeating press gossip. You will not put this question to Mr. Heath. When you have got an answer to him, come and put the question to me. And this last question and answer are not to be recorded. Is this question being recorded?
    Dimbleby: Well it is, because we're running film.
    Wilson: Well, will you cut it out or not? All right, we stop now. No, I'm sorry, I'm really not having this. I'm really not having this. The press may take this view, that they wouldn't put this question to Heath but they put it to me; if the BBC put this question to me, without putting it to Heath, the interview is off, and the whole programme is off. I think it's a ridiculous question to put. Yes, and I mean it cut off, I don't want to read in the Times Diary or miscellany that I asked for it to be cut out. [pause]
    Dimbleby: All right, are we still running? Can I ask you this, then, which I mean, I .. let me put this question, I mean if you find this question offensive then ..
    Wilson: Coming to ask if your curiosity can be satisfied, I think it's disgraceful. Never had such a question in an interview in my life before.
    Dimbleby: I .. [gasps]
    Joe Haines (Wilson's Press Secretary): Well, let's stop now, and we can talk about it, shall we?
    Dimbleby: No, let's .. well, I mean, we'll keep going, I think, don't you?
    Wilson: No, I think we'll have a new piece of film in and start all over again. But if this film is used, or this is leaked, then there's going to be a hell of a row. And this must be ..
    Dimbleby: Well, I certainly wouldn't leak it ..
    Wilson: You may not leak it but these things do leak. I've never been to Lime Grove without it leaking.
    • Exchange with BBC interviewer David Dimbleby recorded for a documentary called "Yesterday's Men" broadcast on 16 June 1971. The BBC did agree not to show this portion of the interview, but Wilson's fears of a leak were justified as a transcript was published on page 1 of The Times on June 18, 1971. A fuller transcript appeared in Private Eye during 1972.

Leader of the OppositionEdit

  • I believe that the situation has now gone so far that it is impossible to conceive of an effective long-term solution in which the agenda at least does not include consideration of, and which is not in some way directed to finding a means of achieving, the aspirations envisaged half a century ago, of progress towards a united Ireland...A substantial term of years will be required before any concept of unification could become a reality, but the dream must be there. If men of moderation have nothing to hope for, men of violence will have something to shoot for.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (25 November 1971)

Prime MinisterEdit

  • Yet people who benefit from this now viciously defy Westminster, purporting to act as though they were an elected government, spending their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods. Who do these people think they are?
    • Broadcast (25 May 1974), referring to the Ulster Workers Council strike, quoted in The Times (27 May 1974), p. 2
  • I have never been emotionally a Europe man. I have been and remain fundamentally a Commonwealth man. I therefore cannot ignore the fact that the vast majority of Commonwealth countries now want Britain to stay in.
    • Speech to the Labour Party conference on Britain's membership of the EEC (26 April 1975), quoted in The Times (28 April 1975), p. 4
  • The lead Britain can give and is already giving rests on the fact that we are a world-minded people. Britain will give a lead in political attitudes and political developments in Europe. We cannot do that by taking our bat home and sinking into an off-shore island mentality.
  • This Party needs to protect itself against the activities of small groups of inflexible political persuasion, extreme so-called left and in a few cases extreme so-called moderates, having in common only their arrogant dogmatism. These groups, equally the multichromatic coalitionist fringe or groups specifically formed to fight other marauding groups, these groups are not what this Party is about. Infestation of this kind thrives only, and can thrive only, in minuscule local parties.
    • Speech to Labour Party conference (30 September 1975), quoted in Labour Party Annual Conference Report 1975, pp. 186-187.

Post-Prime MinisterialEdit

  • I have always said about Tony [Benn] that he immatures with age.
    • Interview with The Times (7 April 1981), p. 12.
  • It stems from the loss of the election and the growth of the 'cowboys'. The Labour Party has got out of the way of losing elections. We are now the natural party of government...These cowboys are absolute Trots. The number of Communists in the party is very small but the Trots are much more sinister. They are negative and have no policy. There is a fairly high number of—not intellectuals but let's say intelligentsia element there, stemming not least from the growth of sociology as a discipline in the universities.
    • Interview with The Times (7 April 1981), p. 12.
  • Roy Jenkins? ...tended to knock off at 7 o'clock...a socialite rather than a Socialist...The SDP. It's not a party, it's a clique or a click, as they say up 'ere. As for Dr Owen and Mr Rodgers, I never thought of them as Cabinet calibre...perfectly good junior ministers. Jim [Callaghan] took a different view. I had retired by then—voluntarily—which is a very unusual thing in politics.
  • ...he was extremely pleased with the things President Reagan had done. One feels in Europe there is somebody in charge.
    • Speech to correspondents in New York (21 September 1981), quoted in The Times (22 September 1981), p. 6
  • President Regan is likely to be more successful in dealing with the Soviet Union than any recent American leader. ... he had been impressed with Mr Reagan's instincts and style.
    • Speech at Indiana University (4 October 1982), quoted in The Times (5 October 1982), p. 4
  • Begin, Shamir and Sharon were the evil three. Sharon is the most evil man I've run across in Israeli politics. [I regard myself as] the best friend Israel had in the Western world.
    • Speech at Indiana University (4 October 1982) after the Beirut massacre, quoted in The Times (5 October 1982), p. 4


  • A week is a long time in politics.
    • Possibly misattributed; according to Nigel Rees in Brewster's Quotations (1994), asked shortly after his retirement in 1977 about the quote, he could not pinpoint the first occasion on which he uttered the words.

Quotes about WilsonEdit

  • 'I thought', said Nye, 'that you were a Yorkshireman but your Dad has been telling me all about Manchester. Where were you born, boy?' With a Yorkshireman's natural pride, I said, thinking of Sheffield's steel, 'Yorkshiremen are not born; they are forged.' 'Forged were you?' said Nye in that musical Welsh lilt of his, 'I always thought there was something counterfeit about you!'
    • Harold Wilson, "Memoirs 1916-1964: The making of a Prime Minister" (Weidenfeld and Nicolson and Michael Joseph, London 1986, p. 10)
  • Harold Wilson, in a sense, was to politics what the Beatles were to popular culture. He simply dominated the nation's political landscape, and he personified the new era, not stuffy or hidebound but classless, forward-looking, modern. Even his enemies and detractors, and there were a few, could not deny his brilliance, his brain and the intelligence born of natural wit, not social background. ... He had, in the end, a very simple belief in the virtues of social justice and equality and, by and large, throughout his time in politics, he applied them. He once said: "The Labour party is a moral crusade, or it is nothing." That should be his real epitaph and long may it remain so.
  • His purpose in politics was to remove the disfiguring evils of poverty and to create a caring society, with equal opportunity, open to advancement and in tune with the changing needs of his time. He was proud to have been responsible for the birth of the Open University. He was by nature a conciliator, and the least assertive of men, but he fought with the doggedness and determination of a true Northerner when he had to. Those qualities, and his high intelligence, kindliness and approachability, helped to spread his influence over a much wider area than his own party. It was a natural expression of that to be a passionate opponent of apartheid and of racial discrimination. He was the most successful leader that Labour has ever had, winning four elections out of five although on each occasion he came to office at a time of great economic difficulty. Above all, he was a devoted servant of his cause and his country.
  • No prime minister ever interfered so much in the work of his colleagues as Wilson did in his first six years. ... Unfortunately, since he had neither political principle nor much government experience to guide him, he did not give Cabinet the degree of leadership which even a less ambitious prime minister should provide. He had no sense of direction, and rarely looked more than a few months ahead. His short-term opportunism, allied with a capacity for self-delusion which made Walter Mitty appear unimaginative, often plunged the government into chaos. Worse still, when things went wrong he imagined everyone was conspiring against him. He believed in demons, and saw most of his colleagues in this role at one time or another.
  • ...what really endeared the people of this country to him was that they knew from his background, his upbringing and his own life, in which there was hardship, that he was a compassionate man who understood their needs and who was doing his best, often in difficult meet those needs and to ensure that people had a better life. That was his philosophy and his purpose in coming into the House, in being in opposition and in being a Minister. ... This country owes a great deal to him.
  • Harold was, above all else, a great political survivor, a fine politician if, perhaps, never truly a statesman.
    • Edward Heath, The Course of My Life (Hodder and Stoughton, 1998), p. 557
  • I shall remember him above all for his courtesy and his kindness. He hated being disagreeable. He liked to be nice to people, which is not always the case with those who had his thrust to power. He also had very good nerve in a crisis. And as he experienced quite a number of crises, that was a big asset. In some ways he was easier to work with when things were going wrong. He was cool and unrecriminatory. ... He served his country well.
  • I do not believe that it is too generous to describe Harold Wilson as one of the most brilliant men of his generation. ... For my generation at least, as observers through television and from a distance, his ever-present pipe became a symbol of tranquillity in times of some turmoil. ... He was a man of many achievements and, perhaps above all, a very human man who served his country well and honourably and who has earned, by that, a secure place in its history.

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